Thursday, January 11, 2018

Do I shy away from criticizing "superstar" scholars?

Though I'm on indefinite Facebook hiatus, I was made aware yesterday of a post in a Facebook apologetics group in which it was stated that the "kind of response" that there has been to Dr. Licona's book has not been made to William Lane Craig, even though Dr. Craig was "holding pretty much the same position concerning the New Testament" that Dr. Licona holds and was doing so in 2010 and 2014. This was based in particular on an endorsement of Licona's work on genre that Dr. Craig made in 2014 and some other comments about alleged "devices" in the gospels, which I've found transcribed here and here.

The author of the post then stated that the reason for this lack of this "kind of" response to Dr. Craig is "obvious" and that the distinction is not "principled" but is because "heresy depend[s] on how influential you are in evangelical circles."

The author did not name me, and perhaps he has someone else in mind in addition to me or instead of me, some person who shies away from criticizing highly influential people and Dr. Craig in particular, but this is a ludicrous charge if directed at my work, and I want to answer it here. The thread on his post, which may have been insinuating that I'm shying away from criticizing Dr. Craig, has been shut down for discussion, but I hope that this response can get out anyway.

A variety of points are relevant here, on the assumption (which may be wrong) that my work is the target of this strange little rant about star status and the criticism of Dr. Licona.

--First and foremost, I have never, ever shied away from criticizing anyone based upon his degree of influence. I just took on pretty much the entire NT evangelical scholarship establishment this past Saturday in a long webinar!

Indeed, though I consider Dr. Craig a good friend and love him greatly as a brother and respect his work, I criticized his approach to the "minimal facts" apologetic in this post at some length and quite strongly. I even learned eventually that a questioner had confronted him with my criticisms in a Q & A later, and I wished in hindsight that I'd given him a heads-up that the critique was at least out there so that he could have prepared an answer in case that happened. Also, in an earlier version of the webinar that I gave on Saturday, which isn't available on-line, given to a local CAA group and labeled with "seven bad habits," I criticized Dr. Craig's uncritical acceptance of the theory of the pre-Markan Passion narrative. It simply wasn't included in the version on Saturday for reasons of space.

Moreover, I have repeatedly criticized some of the work of Dr. Craig Keener, who is hugely influential and who wrote the foreword to my book. See here and here and see about minute 46 in my webinar from Saturday.

I am pretty certain that Drs. Craig and Keener are able to handle scholarly criticism (which is what I'm also directing toward Dr. Licona) without resentment. But let's have no implication that I do not criticize influential people, because that is utterly absurd. In my talk on Saturday (had the critic bothered to listen to it, which it sounds like perhaps he did not) he would also have heard me repeatedly criticizing Dan B. Wallace, who is very influential, as well as Craig A. Evans.

More than ten years ago, Tim and I took on one of the most influential, perhaps the most influential, living Christian philosopher of our time--Alvin Plantinga. We had a debate with him in the pages of Philosophia Christi about some criticisms he had made about the historical argument for the resurrection. I also delivered at a conference and posted on my personal web page an article criticizing Dr. Plantinga's entire approach to the philosophy of religion. So far from resenting this criticism, Dr. Plantinga, I am told, used my article in his classes for discussion before he retired from teaching.

--I was previously unaware that Dr. Craig had in 2014 so heartily endorsed Dr. Licona's work, though I doubt he had at that time seen the whole book as it was published in 2017. I learned of Dr. Craig's strong comments making this endorsement only yesterday via the thread and post in question.

--I've been unable to find a transcription on-line of the segment by Dr. Craig from 2010 or a link to the podcast. Based on a transcription made by the author of the post, Dr. Craig there, without naming Dr. Licona, endorsed the idea that John moved the cleansing of the Temple and said that this did not count as an error because such chronological moving was allowed in the genre in which the gospels were written. That's the only example he gives in 2010 that I know of. I would say that at that time he may have been influenced by some comments to that effect when Craig Keener endorses the moving of the Temple cleansing in Keener's commentary on John.

--In the 2014 transcript, available here and here, Dr. Craig again uses the Temple cleansing example and also seems to be implying (though his wording is frustratingly ambiguous) that Luke "put" all of the events after the resurrection on Easter Sunday though he knew this was not true. Those are the only examples he gives of fictionalizing devices that he accepts or specific instances thereof. He expressly mentions Licona's work and praises it in the Q & A here.

--In both of these, Dr. Craig wasn't just taking a position, arrived at entirely on his own, on the whole New Testament, that agrees generally with the whole position taken by Dr. Licona on the New Testament. He was clearly influenced by Dr. Licona himself by 2014. He didn't just hammer this whole genre idea out for himself even in 2010. It was popularized by Burridge, and Dr. Keener has endorsed it to some extent as well. And Dr. Craig discussed only a couple of the relatively milder fictionalization examples.

Dr. Craig doesn't endorse in these podcasts nearly the whole of what Licona says in his 2017 book, which didn't yet exist. Nor had Licona yet said (as far as I know) such sweeping things about the infancy narratives as "midrash" as he wrote in a 2016 debate with Bart Ehrman, nor do we have any reason to believe that Dr. Craig endorses those statements. I could be surprised on this point, but I'd be quite surprised if Dr. Craig agrees with Licona concerning the infancy narratives, concerning whether or not Jesus said "I thirst," concerning agnosticism about whether Jesus recognizably uttered the "I am" statements in John, whether or not John made up the whole incident of Jesus breathing on his disciples, and more.

In fact, I'd be a bit surprised if Dr. Craig is even aware of all of these things.

--To the extent that Dr. Craig endorses fictionalization on the part of the Gospel authors in those podcasts, I am indeed disappointed and I do indeed very much disagree with him. I particularly disagree in his repeated characterization of two Temple cleansings as "artificial." Here I agree with D.A. Carson that New Testament scholars just have an unfortunate hang-up about similar things happening twice, even though it happens all the time in real life. As I've said on numerous occasions, I've protested in front of abortion clinics repeatedly, and if different accounts had reported my different protests in similar terms (I did similar things, after all!), but placed them at different times in my life, this wouldn't mean that they were in conflict.

I'm even more disappointed that someone as analytically gifted and sharp as Dr. Craig should commit the "Bad Habit #1" of NT scholars as outlined in my webinar: Failure to make crucial distinctions. In both his discussion of Luke's alleged "telescoping" and of John's allegedly moving the Temple cleansing, he fails to distinguish at all between merely narrating a-chronologically (on the one hand) and narrating dyschronologically (on the other). That is, between not indicating a chronology and (on the other hand) deliberately implying or even stating a false chronology. These must be kept distinct, and such a distinction would enable us to have much more profitable discussions of these matters, since it is much more controversial to say that the Gospel authors narrated inaccurate chronology deliberately (for literary or theological reasons) than that they merely narrated out of chronological order or extremely briefly without indicating any chronology.

Nor (and here Dr. Craig unfortunately seems to be taking someone else's word for it) has Dr. Licona or anyone else even demonstrated that it was a known "device" that was "accepted" deliberately to narrate an inaccurate chronology, nor that the Gospel authors would have considered themselves licensed to do so. I have addressed that point at length in my post series, including the posts on Plutarch.

--Finally, since the concept of inerrancy was raised again in the critique (which may or may not have been directed at my work) in the apologetics group, let me say this one.more.time: I am not an inerrantist, and this is not (for me) about inerrancy. I don't know how many times I have to keep saying this. This is (for me) about reliability.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Webinar now available on Youtube

My webinar called "Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars and How to Avoid Them" is now available on Youtube. Have fun watching!

Interestingly, my host for the webinar, Jonathan McLatchie, has taken some flak for giving me this forum to dispute the ideas of some NT scholars. He posted this comment along with the Youtube link to Facebook and has given me permission to post that comment to my blogs.

Here is the recording of Saturday's Apologetics Academy webinar featuring analytic philosopher Dr. Lydia McGrew. Her subject was "Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars (and how to avoid them)". I regret that some people seem to be rather upset that I have sided with Lydia in regards to this topic over Michael Licona, Craig Evans, et al. I have even lost Facebook friends as a result. May I emphasize that this is scholarship and there is no ill-intent towards any of the people whose views I and Lydia depart from. If you put scholarly argumentation into the public realm, then you need to learn not to take it personally when others disagree and publicly voice their dissent. I invite you to watch the webinar for yourself and make up your own mind.

Monday, January 01, 2018

The darkness did not overcome it

I admit: I have always had trouble achieving Cartesian clarity about the fact that evil is strictly a privation. I have a strong philosophical intuition that it is true but not absolute certainty. And it is the kind of thing about which one ought to be able to achieve certainty.

The metaphysical waters are muddied by the fact that evil beings are undeniably real beings. The devil and evil people, people who say, "Evil, be thou my good" are real. They exist. So in one sense one can say that "evil exists." Their actions, too, are undeniably real. "Evil exists" in the sense that evil actions exist, brought about by sentient beings with evil wills.

Yet there is a stubborn idea, taught steadily and without any shadow of a doubt in the Christian philosophy of (say) Aquinas, that there is no such thing as "The Evil" in the same sense that a Platonist can speak of "The Good" and that the Christian semi-Platonist can assimilate "The Good" to the character of God. Good, one intuits, can be metaphysically ultimate in a way that evil cannot be. There can be absolute Good but not absolute Evil. Evil is always trying to twist or evade something else--to damage, to hurt, to turn away from, to reject, something that is originally good. In this sense the evil that we find in evil persons, actions, and choices is parasitic. But Good is not similarly bound to be trying to reform evil. A good person may be a reformer, and a good God is a redeemer of fallen creatures, but reforming or redeeming evil is not of the essence of the Good in the same sense that damaging or rejecting goodness is central to an evil act or the will of an evil being.

This is all well-trodden ground, of course.

I was reflecting on it recently apropos of Christmas Mass. We had reached the Sanctus, and I was trying to think about the holiness of God--a surprisingly difficult thing on which to fix one's mind. One finds that one has so little clear concept.

Plus, the devil or one of his minions sees to it that unpleasant thoughts intrude at the most inopportune moments: "But what about this?" he whispers, drawing one's mind to some heinous evil act of man, to precious souls harmed, stubborn apostates, irreparable losses. "What good is all that 'holiness of God' stuff in the face of that?" asks the tormentor.

But it dawned on me that all such things are just the devil's ways of giving the finger to God. They are the idiotic gesture of a lesser being against a being incomparably above his comprehension. And God is not changed by them at all. The immense, unchangeable Fact of the sheer Goodness of God is not touched or besmirched in the slightest by all the evil that His creatures do. It is not that evil does not do real harm to other creatures; of course it does. But it can do no ultimate harm to God.

I was reminded of Sam's reflections on the star Earendil when he saw it from Mordor:
Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel DĂșath in the West the night sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
I cannot claim that this provides a clear argument that evil is a privation. There is a premise or two missing in there somewhere, so Cartesian certainty still eludes. But there is a connection there that teases just at the edge of perfect clarity. Somehow the intrinsic untouchableness of the Ultimate Good is a pointer to its metaphysical nature. God's unchangeable, unconquerable holiness is a necessary fact of His nature, which means that the Good is the kind of thing that can be metaphysically ultimate, while evil cannot be.

I will not say that such a proposition is adequate to the subject, at all. But there was a sense that it all fit together--the divine beauty and perfection, which nothing that happens on earth can mar, the metaphysical nature of Goodness, and the comfort.

For the Bible tells us, again and again, that we will somehow be united with God, not so as to lose our humanity, our finiteness, or our individual reality, but so as to partake in some mysterious way of his changeless Goodness. We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And perhaps that is how He will wipe away all tears from our eyes, and there shall be no more sorrow; the former things shall pass away.

For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.